Game Theory is the seventh studio album by American hip hop band The Roots, released August 29, 2006, on Def Jam Recordings. The group’s first release for the label after leaving Geffen Records, the album was recorded by the Roots mostly using the Apple-developed software application GarageBand. A darker, grittier album with minimal emphasis on hooks in comparison to their previous work, Game Theory features a stripped-down sound similar to the work of Public Enemy, with lyrics that concern sociological themes and the late hip hop producer J Dilla.
The album debuted at number nine on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, selling 61,000 copies in its first week. It produced two singles and achieved moderate sales success. Upon its release, Game Theory received acclaim from most music critics and earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rap Album. To date, the album has sold over 200,000 copies in the United States.
In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, Questlove expressed his view on contemporary black music and described the concept of Game Theory, comparing it to previous works:
In this day and age, I’m kind of noticing that nobody in urban music really has the balls to just stop partying for one second… I mean, partying is good and whatnot, and it’s cool to get down, but I really think that 2006 called for a very serious record. This ain’t the Debbie Downer record, or the political, save-the-world record, but this is definitely not the MC-based, battle-themed album that the Roots have been known for. This is our most serious record to date.
Described by Questlove as “very mature, serious, and very dark”, the album, unlike the band’s previous two efforts Phrenology (2002) and The Tipping Point (2004), combines The Roots’s progressive tendencies and lush, jazz influenced hip-hop into a more homogenous and cohesive recording than past efforts had shown. In what could be a salute to a fellow experimental band, The Roots sample Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” for the track “Atonement”.
The subject material for Game Theory follows the more serious tone of the album, with topics ranging from the war in Iraq to violence in music. Questlove was quoted as saying “There was too much going on that we couldn’t just sit back and not speak on it.” In accordance with its more-serious tone, the album heavily references Public Enemy’s highly-political It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back on its lead track “False Media”.
Game Theory debuted at number nine on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart with first week sales of 61,000 copies. It also debuted at number five on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and at number four on its Top Digital Albums chart. According to Nielsen SoundScan, the album has sold over 200,000 copies in the United States.
Game Theory received universal acclaim from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 83, based on 26 reviews. AllMusic’s Andy Kellman praised its musical quality and lyrical themes, writing “Spinning turbulence, paranoia, anger, and pain into some of the most exhilarating and startling music released in 2006,… Game Theory is a heavy album, the Roots’ sharpest work. It’s destined to become one of Def Jam’s proudest, if not most popular, moments”. The New York Times writer Nate Chinen viewed the album’s production as inconsistent, but found Black Thought’s performance more focused and engaged than on previous efforts, while writing that “?uestlove infuses ‘Game Theory’ with a hard sonic logic, so that the music often sounds as tough as the lyrics”. Vibe’s Thomas Golianopoulos gave it 4 out of 5 stars and called it “a masterfully crafted, sobering wake-up call”. Jeff Vrabel of PopMatters dubbed it “The Roots’ darkest, grimiest, most unrelenting and possibly most focused effort to date”.
Los Angeles Times writer Oliver Wang commented that Game Theory “moves coherently as a whole and not just assemblage of spare songs”. Rolling Stone’s Peter Relic viewed the album as a progression over their previous work and wrote “For every head-nodding beat (and ?uestlove brings plenty of ’em), Game Theory has a head-turning treat”. Will Dukes of The Village Voice called it The Roots’ “most radical record to date” and commended Black Thought for his lyricism on the album, writing “Raw, emotive, and urgent as a motherfucker, his flow—on songs like opener ‘False Media,’ whose gangly steel snares give way to plush orchestration—is bleak and expansive and seething with wrath”. Robert Christgau, writing for MSN Music, felt that the album is “not hooky enough”, but “strong enough to compensate” with a tone that “maintains until the J. Dilla encomium that closes.”
In its end-of-year list, Rolling Stone named it the eighteenth best album of 2006, calling it “classic studio Roots”. It was named one of the top ten albums of the year by URB. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, ultimately losing to rapper Ludacris’s Release Therapy (2006) at the 49th Grammy Awards.
In 2013, for Complex, the singer Bilal named it among his 25 favorite albums, explaining that, “It just has a real nice flow. That whole album just sounds very thought out and put together. I think Game Theory was kind of a game changer. It just seemed like everything was fluid.”